Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (CD review)

Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802054.

It wasn't long after German conductor and composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) premiered An Alpine Symphony in 1915 that critics began lambasting it as frivolous cotton-candy: picture-postcard music unworthy of the man's talents. That always seemed to me an unfair assessment. It appears that people couldn't help comparing the new work to Strauss's previous tone poems, like Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which combined a degree of philosophical insight with the purely pictorial nature of the music. These folks thought the Alpine Symphony just didn't live up because it merely told a story. I wonder if they thought of lodging the same complaint against Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

In any case, it wasn't until the latter part of the twentieth century that the Alpine Symphony got its proper due as more and more-important conductors took up the baton in its defense. The first of the influential ones was Rudolf Kempe's second recording of the piece for EMI in 1971, Kempe conducting the very orchestra for whom Strauss originally dedicated the score, the Dresden Staatskapelle. It remains the recording to which we must compare all others. After Kempe came recordings from Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan (the first digital pressing), Herbert Blomstedt, Andre Previn, Edo de Waart, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Christian Thielemann, David Zinman, Gerard Schwarz, Andrew Litton, Franz Welser-Möst, Antoni Wit, Marin Alsop, and Marek Janowski among many others. These conductors lent the work prestige and helped it gain public acceptance.

In 1985, Bernard Haitink recorded it for Philips in the present recording, reissued by Newton Classics. (Haitink re-recorded it live with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2008, but we'll leave that for another time.) It was this mid-Eighties recording that helped reinforce the notion that the Alpine Symphony might not be purely empty-headed fluff after all. Nevertheless, when Philips issued a set of "Great Strauss Tone Poems" in 1994, they omitted the Symphony.

Of course, the Alpine Symphony is not really a symphony at all, at least not a symphony in the conventional sense. It's a series of twenty-two interconnected passages, or movements, that tell the story of an alpine climb, with chapter titles telling the tale, things like "Night," "Sunrise," "The Ascent," "Entry into the Forest," "Wandering by the Brook," "By the Waterfall," "On Flowering Meadows," "An Alpine Pasture," "On the Glacier," "Dangerous Moments," "On the Summit," "Calm Before the Storm," "Thunderstorm," "Sunset," and a return to "Night." Strauss describes each of these events in music, and although there may be a few too many climaxes along the way, it is all quite graphic and imposing. Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, over 120 players, and the piece is vast in scope, elaborate, often majestic, and not a little bombastic.

Indeed, the work started out as something else entirely and kind of evolved into what it finally became. Early on, Strauss wrote "I will call my Alpine Symphony the Antichrist, because in it there is moral purification by means of one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of glorious, eternal nature." Later, he said it was simply the musical reflection of a childhood mountain-climbing expedition. Be that as it may, whether you consider the Alpine Symphony in a purely metaphorical or literal sense seems to me beside the point; to enjoy it is the goal.

Anyway, Haitink's interpretation has weight, authority, and grandeur in spades. He makes it more than just pictorial, although it is certainly that; it is music for music's sake on a lofty scale. Haitink never glamorizes the work or sentimentalizes it. As Haitink does in his Mahler readings (and the comparison is apt because Strauss greatly admired Gustav Mahler, using certain forms and themes from Mahler's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies in the Alpine Symphony), he plays the score as straightforwardly as possible and lets the music take care of itself. Most important, the conductor never approaches the work as a series of disconnected ideas but a unified, structural whole. As a result, he brings each scene vividly to life and allows the Alpine Symphony to shine forth more majestically than ever. This is, indeed, one of the great performances of a sometimes underestimated work.

Philips recorded the performance digitally in the Concertgebouw in 1985, and as it is no longer in the Philips catalogue, Newton Classics thankfully reissued it in 2011. Although the engineers originally made it with digital processing, there is an odd, faint background noise, almost like a low-level tape hiss, audible during quieter passages, especially at the beginning and the end of the piece. That said, almost everything else is fairly good about the sound. Typically from this source, there is a big, spacious hall ambience, yet one that never interferes too seriously with the overall clarity of the sonics. It's true there is a somewhat fat upper bass and a degree of resonance that slightly veils the midrange; however, if anything the acoustic reinforces the immense size of the music, the orchestra spread broadly across the sound stage even beyond the speakers, as large-scale as the Alps themselves. There is pretty good orchestral depth, too, with strong dynamics, a wide frequency response, and a vigorous impact. In short, it's a decent recording, if not really in the demonstration class or quite up to the sound of the Concertgebouw in the analogue Seventies.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa